Give me an R! Give me a T!

Happy to be compared to St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, R.T. Rybak wants to use Minneapolis's top office to sell the city

THE JUNETEENTH PARADE is winding through the north side of Minneapolis on a humid Saturday morning, and R.T. Rybak is right where he belongs: on the campaign trail, throwing off endorphins with the giddy, attention-getting panache of a groom on his wedding day. The renegade mayoral candidate careens and canters from sidewalk to sidewalk like an ebullient windup toy, shaking hands, slapping teal Rybak for Mayor stickers on blouses, T-shirts, strollers, even a few foreheads. Behind him, campaign workers carry a seven-foot Styrofoam facsimile of an air freshener.

Abetted by a trim physique, strikingly handsome facial features, and a marathoner's endurance, Rybak has reason to believe this sweat equity will translate into political capital. "People saw me running up and down the street and started saying, 'Hey! We need that kind of energy in city hall,'" he enthuses as the parade concludes at Wirth Park. "You only need one message in a parade. Ours is, 'See that air freshener? We're going to blow some fresh air into city hall.'"

Those closest to him say Rybak has always been a ringmaster with neon genes. "He was always the captain, organizing parades and other events in the neighborhood," says Lorraine of her youngest son. "R.T. just has the ability to add flair to any situation," observes Linda Houden, his close friend for more than 20 years. "His family will come up to my family's cottage at New Year's and it will be 30 below zero and he'll go out and make ice candles. His optimism is unflappable--he never seems to get discouraged."

Diana Watters

Now, at the age of 45, Rybak is turning up the energy and optimism to pursue a lifelong dream. Back in the late Sixties there were plenty of ways for a precocious 13-year old to imagine his future. The young Raymond Thomas Rybak Jr. pined for two relatively geekish pots of gold. "I decided that my goals in life were to write about development issues for the Star Tribune and to become mayor of Minneapolis."

With big city newspaper reporter already on Rybak's résumé, the timing of this first mayoral run is auspicious. As Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton nears the end of her second term, she finds herself under fire for being both insular and somnambulant. She has run a lackluster campaign pockmarked by events such as the recent downgrading of the city's bond rating and her appointment of a political supporter to investigate corruption at city hall. Now that the boom times of the late Nineties are kaput, critics of the mayor are effectively juxtaposing the rising cost and diminished quality of basic services such as water and garbage collection with the city's huge public investments, often via tax-increment financing, in private downtown developments such as the Target headquarters and Block E.

Sayles Belton's vulnerability has turned the mayor's race into an unpredictable tussle, crowded with four major candidates vying to be among the top two vote-getters in the September 11 primary. The winners will then face off in a general election on November 6. "It seems like the sentiment in the city is pretty evenly divided between Sharon and anti-Sharon," says longtime political operative Pat Forceia, who is not involved in any of the mayoral campaigns. "The question is, Who gets to be the anti-Sharon?"

Of the three main challengers (Minneapolis City Council member Lisa McDonald and Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein are the others), Rybak is the only true political outsider. Everyone else held public office before announcing their candidacies: Rybak was best known for organizing a rally where people showed up in their pajamas to protest loud night flights near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. At the Minneapolis DFL convention in May, Rybak parlayed his penchant for exciting activism to deny Sayles Belton what most everyone had assumed would be a slam-dunk endorsement. On the final ballot before the event was adjourned, he actually outpolled the mayor.

Yet, unlike political insurgents such as Sen. Paul Wellstone and Gov. Jesse Ventura, Rybak ultimately chooses not to position himself as a feisty outsider. Instead, he continually refers to his résumé for evidence that he has managed people in the private sector, been a union activist, and mobilized citizens at the grassroots level, and "has a tremendous amount of development experience." "I'd come into that office with more direct experience for [mayor] than certainly anybody in this race, and anyone in a long, long time," he flatly states.

In fact, given his physical attractiveness, youthful vigor, bandwagon-oriented amiability, discomfort with political labels, and emphasis on the private sector, the local political figure Rybak most resembles is St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. There are differences, of course, most notably his commitment to turn down PAC money and work toward broader disclosure of campaign contributions. Still, Rybak will invoke the Coleman comparison himself, especially when talking about his talent for championing the city.

A salesman through and through, Rybak--like Coleman--possesses an innate ability to believe his own hype. After investigating the details of Rybak's résumé and the lack of details in his campaign platform, however, it's clear Minneapolis voters have reason to be a bit more skeptical.

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